Joshua Hoffine‘s terrifying images drag us into a world of nightmares, hunting, danger, and they also contain a touch of irony and romance.
His first horror photographs, dating back to 2003, have consecrated him as the founder of a real sub-genre, which combines elements of literature and cinema to generate a new perspective for the photographic art; as he stated in an interview, unlike video games, music, etc., photography has never enjoyed a true horror conjugation before.
Hoffine’s monsters populate cellars, attics, bathrooms, all those places that are most familiar to us and that we consider safe; demons mock us from dark corners, as we try to figure out where they are. But above all, they can hide inside us.
Looking in the mirror we discover that we are only a grotesque copy of our own fears; beauty, as it often happens in romantic literature, is just the superficial layer for a corrupt and deformed soul. Nineteenth-century scenarios become the background for brutal crimes and surreal apparitions, through which Hoffine’s imagery produces silent and unprecedented stories, compressed in a single shot capable of throwing up a thousand questions.
As a lover of horror classics, Hoffine takes advantage of the immortal fame of icons such as Jack the Ripper, Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hyde, Nosferatu and Elizabeth Bathory (beautifully captured as she wears a beauty mask during her usual bath in a virgin’s blood), to revisit their spirit in a modern way, telling the story in one or more shots. Lighting, make-up and expressiveness are studied in detail to transform the image into a continuous exchange between reality and vision, which is why each picture is always something more than a simple “movie scene”. The moment he decides to immortalize is the perfect point of maximum dramatic tension.
The classics of horror are often represented in his work, as you can see in his recently published anthology, a collection that spans across his last thirteen years of work. The silent killer, Stephen King’s clown with his menacing balloon, the horde of ravenous zombies, the corpse bride: it’s a great tribute to the horror genre which, as intended by the author, by stabbing our imagination forces us to “see what we did not want to see“.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Hoffine has also ventured into taking the role of director in 2014, for his first short (yet very intense) film, Dark Lullaby.
The protagonist of Dark Lulllaby is one of Hoffine’s daughters. Starting from his very first shots, dedicated to childhood nightmares, Hoffine has often immersed his daughters (along with other relatives) in the surreal scenarios he creates; these photographs, collected in his most famous work After Dark My Sweet, are still in my opinion the best of his vast production.
The reason is that they concern us closely: the monster under the bed, the spiders entering from the window, the jaws that seem to come out of the darkness of the closet — they all belong to the oldest memories each of us has, and sometimes even to our everyday adult life. These are primordial, indelible nightmares: darkness, insects and ghosts are three things that almost all of us fear, even when there’s really no reason, even when it might feel silly to be afraid.
Combining fantastic monsters and little girls is a way to create a terribly effective contrast, one that was always dear to the horror genre. However rich the artist’s imagination and the skill of the model/actor may be, no one can represent horror better than children. In truth, through horror, we always go back to childhood, reopening our trunk of memories we left in the attic, to return to that good old pavor nocturnus. This is why a child remains the perfect protagonist of any scary scene.
One wonders what kind of memory Hoffine’s five daughters will retain from this experience.
Of course, this master of horror should be credited with having created a new kind of photography, which through the excellent use of makeup is able to show us what we did not want to see.
Suppose you’re making your way through a jungle, and in pulling aside a bush you find yourself before a huge snake, ready to attack you. All of a sudden adrenaline rushes through your body, your eyes open wide, and you instantly begin to sweat as your heartbeat skyrockets: in a word, you feel afraid.
But is your fear triggering all these physical reactions, or is it the other way around?
To make a less disquieting example, let’s say you fall in love at first sight with someone. Are the endorphines to be accounted for your excitation, or is your excitation causing their discharge through your body?
What comes first, physiological change or emotion? Which is the cause and which is the effect?
This dilemma was a main concern in the first studies on emotion (and it still is, in the field of affective neurosciences). Among the first and most influential hypothesis was the James-Lange theory, which maintained the primacy of physiological changes over feelings: the brain detects a modification in the stimuli coming from the nervous system, and it “interprets” them by giving birth to an emotion.
One of the problems with this theory was the impossibility of obtaining clear evidence. The skeptics argued that if every emotion arises mechanically within the body, then there should be a gland or an organ which, when conveniently stimulated, will invariably trigger the same emotion in every person. Today we know a little bit more of how emotions work, in regard to the amygdala and the different areas of cerebral cortex, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the objection against the James-Lange theory was basically this — “come on, find me the muscle of sadness!“
In 1924, Carney Landis, a Minnesota University graduate student, set out to understand experimentally whether these physiological changes are the same for everybody. He focused on those modifications that are the most evident and easy to study: the movement of facial muscles when emotion arises. His study was meant to find repetitive patterns in facial expressions.
To understand if all subjects reacted in the same way to emotions, Landis recruited a good number of his fellow graduate students, and began by painting their faces with standard marks, in order to highlight their grimaces and the related movement of facial muscles.
The experiment consisted in subjecting them to different stimuli, while taking pictures of their faces.
At first volunteers were asked to complete some rather harmless tasks: they had to listen to jazz music, smell ammonia, read a passage from the Bible, tell a lie. But the results were quite discouraging, so Landis decided it was time to raise the stakes.
He began to show his subjects pornographic images. Then some medical photos of people with horrendous skin conditions. Then he tried firing a gunshot to capture on film the exact moment of their fright. Still, Landis was having a hard time getting the expressions he wanted, and in all probability he began to feel frustrated. And here his experiment took a dark turn.
He invited his subjects to stick their hand in a bucket, without looking. The bucket was full of live frogs. Click, went his camera.
Landis encouraged them to search around the bottom of the mysterious bucket. Overcoming their revulsion, the unfortunate volunteers had to rummage through the slimy frogs until they found the real surprise: electrical wires, ready to deliver a good shock. Click. Click.
But the worst was yet to come.
The experiment reached its climax when Landis put a live mouse in the subject’s left hand, and a knife in the other. He flatly ordered to decapitate the mouse.
Most of his incredulous and stunned subjects asked Landis if he was joking. He wasn’t, they actually had to cut off the little animal’s head, or he himself would do it in front of their eyes.
At this point, as Landis had hoped, the reactions really became obvious — but unfortunately they also turned out to be more complex than he expected. Confronted with this high-stress situation, some persons started crying, others hysterically laughed; some completely froze, others burst out into swearing.
Two thirds of the paricipants ended up complying with the researcher’s order, and carried out the macabre execution. In any case, the remaining third had to witness the beheading, performed by Landis himself.
As we said, the subjects were mainly other students, but one notable exception was a 13 years-old boy who happened to be at the department as a patient, on the account of psychological issues and high blood pressure. His reaction was documented by Landis’ ruthless snapshots.
Perhaps the most embarassing aspect of the whole story was that the final results for this cruel test — which no ethical board would today authorize — were not even particularly noteworthy.
Landis, in his Studies of Emotional Reactions, II., General Behavior and Facial Expression (published on the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4 , 447-509) came to these conclusions:
1) there is no typical facial expression accompanying any emotion aroused in the experiment;
2) emotions are not characterized by a typical expression or recurring pattern of muscular behavior;
3) smiling was the most common reaction, even during unpleasant experiences;
4) asymmetrical bodily reactions almost never occurred;
5) men were more expressive than women.
Hardly anything that could justify a mouse massacre, and the trauma inflicted upon the paritcipants.
After obtaining his degree, Carney Landis devoted himself to sexual psychopatology. He went on to have a brillant carreer at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. And he never harmed a rodent again, despite the fact that he is now mostly remembered for this ill-considered juvenile experiment rather than for his subsequent fourty years of honorable research.
There is, however, one last detail worth mentioning.
Alex Boese in his Elephants On Acid, underlines how the most interesting figure of all this bizarre experiment went unnoticed: the fact that two thirds of the subjects, although protesting and suffering, obeyed the terrible order.
And this percentage is in fact similar to the one recorded during the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a scientist commanded the subjects to inflict an electric shock to a third individual (in reality, an actor who pretended to receive the painful discharge). In that case as well, despite the ethical conflict, the simple fact that the order came from an authority figure was enough to push the subjects into carrying out an action they perceived as aberrant.
The Milgram experiment took place in 1961, almost forty years after the Landis experiment. “It is often this way with experiments — says Boese — A scientis sets out to prove one thing, but stumbles upon something completely different, something far more intriguing. For this reason, good researchers know they should always pay close attention to strange events that occur during their experiments. A great discovery might be lurking right beneath their eyes – or beneath te blade of their knife.“
The French came up with a wonderful expression, l’esprit de l’escalier. It’s that sense of frustration when the right witty answer to someone’s question or criticism pops up in your mind when you have already left, and you’re heading down the stairs (escalier).
This summer a friend asked me the question I should have always been waiting for, and that ironically nobody – not even those who know me well – ever asked me: “Why are you so interested in death?“
I remember saying something vague about my fascination with funeral rites, about the relevance of death in art, about every culture being actually defined by its relationship with the afterlife… Yet in my mind I was surprised by the triviality and impersonality of my answers. Maybe the question was a bit naive, like asking an old sailor what he finds so beautiful about ocean waves. But then again her curiosity was totally legitimate: why taking interest in death in a time when it is normally denied and removed? And how could I, after all these years of studying and writing, addressing far more complex issues, have not anticipated and prepared for such a direct question?
Maybe it was in an effort to make up for the esprit de l’escalier which had caught me that day, that I decided to meet up with like-minded people, who happen to cultivate my same interests, to try and understand their motivations.
Now, there is only one place in the world where I could find, all together, the main academics, intellectuals and artists who have made death their main focus. So, I flew up to Philadelphia.
The Death Salon, for those who haven’t heard of it, is an event organized by the death-positive movement revolving around Caitlin Doughty, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing not long ago. It consists of two days of meetings, conferences, music and games, all of which explore death – in its multiple artistic, cultural, social and philosophical facets.
This year Death Salon took place in an exceptional location, inside Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, one of the best-known pathological anatomy museums in the world.
Besides the pleasure of finally meeting in person several “penfriends” and scholars I admire, I was interested in experiencing first-hand this new reality, to feel its vibes: I wanted to understand what kind of people could, in such a joyful and subversive way, define themselves as death aficionados, while trying to take this topic away from taboo through a more relaxed and open dialogue on everything death-related.
The variety of different Death Salon attendees impressed me from the start, and just like I expected every one of them had their own, very personal reasons to be there: there were writers researching ideas for their next novel, nurses who wanted to understand how they could better relate to the terminally ill, nice old ladies who worked as tour guides in nearby city museums, medical students, morticians, photographers and artists whose work for some reason included death, persons who were struggling to cope with a recent loss and who were hoping to find a more intimate comprehension for their suffering in that multicolored crowd.
The shared feeling was one of strange, subtle excitement: on a superficial level, it could almost seem like a gathering for “death nerds”, all enthusiastically chatting about grave robbers and adipocere in front of their coffee, just like others zealously discuss sports or politics. But that little sparkle in every participant’s eyes actually betrayed a more profound relief, one of being at last free to talk openly about their own fears, protected within a family which does not judge certain obsessions, feeling certain that even their most secret insecurity could be brought to light here.
We are all wounded, in the face of death, and it’s an ancient, ever open wound. The most memorable aspect of Death Salon is that the shame attached to such wound seemed to fade away, at least for the space of two days, and every pain or worry was channeled in a cathartic debate.
And in this context the various conferences, in their heterogeneity, little by little made it clear for me that there was not just one plain answer to the question that brought me there in the first place (“why are you so interested in death?”). Here is a summary of the works presented at Death Salon, and of the many concepts they suggested.
Death is damn interesting
Marianne Hamel is a forensic pathologist, and her report illuminated the differences between her real every-day job and its fictionalized version in movies and TV shows. To clarify the matter, she started off by declaring that she never performed an autopsy in the middle of the night under a single light bulb, nor she ever showed up at a crime scene wearing high heels; among the other debunked myths, “I can only guess the exact time of a victim’s death if they’ve been shot through their watch“. Some implications of her job, if they lack a Hollywood appeal, are actually incredibily important: to quote just one example, forensic pathologists have a clear idea of the state of public health before any other professional. They’re the first to know if a new drug is becoming trendy, or if certain dangerous behaviours are spreading through the population.
At Death Salon other peculiar topics were addressed, such as the difficulties in museum restoration of ancient Egyptian mummies (M. Gleeson), the correct way of “exploding” skulls to prepare them in the tradition of French anatomist Edmé François Chauvot de Beauchêne (R. M. Cohn), and the peptide mass fingerprinting method to assess whether a book is really bound in human skin (A. Dhody, D. Kirby, R. Hark, M. Rosenbloom). There were talks on illustrious dead and their ghosts (C. Dickey) and on Hart Island, a huge, tax-payed mass grave in the heart of New York City (B. Lovejoy).
Death can be fun
A hilarious talk by Elizabeth Harper, author of the delightful blog All The Saints You Should Know, focused on those Saints whose bodies miraculously escaped decomposition, and on the intricate (and far from intuitive) beaurocratic procedures the Roman Catholic Church has established to recognize an “incorrupt” relic from a slightly less prodigious one. It is interesting how certain things we Italians take for granted, as we’ve seen them in every church since we were children, come out as pretty crazy in the eyes of many Americans…
Can we turn a cemetery into a place for the living? At Laurel Hill cemetery, in Philadelphia, recreational activities, film screenings, charity marathons and night shows take place, as reported by Alexis Jeffcoat and Emma Stern.
If all this wasn’t enough to understand that death and entertainment are not enemies, on the last evening the Death Salon organized at the bar National Mechanics, in a jovial pub atmosphere, a Death Quizzo – namely a game show where teams battled over their knowledge of the most curious details regarding death and corpses.
Death is a painful poem
Sarah Troop, executive director of The Order of The Good Death and museum curator, bravely shared with the public what is probably the most traumatic experience of all: the loss of a young child. The difficulty Sarah experienced in elaborating her grief pushed her to seek a more adequate mindset in her Mexican roots. Here, small dead children become angelitos, little angels which the relatives dress up in embroidered clothes and who, being pure souls, can act as a medium between Earth and Heaven. The consolation for a mother who lost her child is in finding, inside a tradition, a specific role, wich modern secularized society fails to supply. And if pain can never go away, it is somehow shared across a culture which admits its existence, and instills it with a deeper meaning.
Death tells us some incredible stories Evi Numen illustrated the post-mortem scandal of John Frankford, who was victim of one of many truculent incidents that were still happening some thirty years after the Pennsylvania Anatomy Act (1867), due to the chronical lack of cadavers to dissect in medical schools.
And, speaking of gruesome stories, no tradition beats murder ballads, imported from Europe as a sort of chanted crime news. At the Death Salon, after a historical introduction by Lavinia Jones Wright, a trio of great musicians went on to interpret some of the most relevant murder ballads.
Death is a dialogue Dr. Paul Koudounaris, Death Salon’s real rockstar, explained the difference between cultures who set up a soft border in relation to their dead, as opposed to other cultures which build a hard boundary: in the majority of cultures, including our own until recent times, taking care of the corpses, even years after their death, is a way to maintain ancestors active within the social tissue. What Norman Bates did to his mother in Psycho, in Tana Toraja would be regarded as an example of filial devotion (I talked about it in this article).
Robert Hicks, director of Mütter Museum, explored the implications of displaying human remains in museums today, wondering about the evolution of post mortem imagery and about the politics and ownership of the dead. David Orr, artist and photographer, offered a review of symmetry in the arts, particularly in regard to the skull, a symbol that refers to our own identity.
Death must be faced and domesticated
Finally, various facets of dying were exposed, often complex and contradictory.
Death defines who we are, affirmed Christine Colby as she told the story of Jennifer Gable, a transgender who during her whole life fought to assert her identity, only to be buried by her family as a man. Death changes along with society, unveiling new layers of complexity.
Dr. Erin Lockard, despite being a doctor herself, while assisting her dying mother had to face other doctors who, maybe as a defense strategy, denied the obvious, delaying the old woman’s agony with endless new therapies.
In closing, here is someone who decided to teach death at the university. Norma Bowe‘s “Death in perspective” class has a three-years waiting list, and offers a series of practical activities: the students take field trips to hospices, hospitals and funeral homes, attend an autopsy, create spaces for meditation and build their own approach to death without philosophical or religious filters, through first-hand experience.
My opinion on Death Salon? Two intense and fruitful days, gone in a flash. Openly talking about death is essential, now more than ever, but – and I think this is the point of the whole Salon – it is also unbelievable, mind-bending fun: all that has been said, both by panelists and the audience, all these unexpected viewpoints, clearly prove that death is, even now, a territory dominated by wonder.
Still overloaded with stimuli, I pondered my unresolved question during the night flight back home. Why am I so fascinated with death?
Looking out the window towards the approaching coast of old Europe, with its little flickering lights, it became clear that the only possible answer, as I suspected from the beginning, was the most elementary one.
“Because being interested in death means to be interested in life“.
We shouldn’t fear autopsies.
I’m not using this term in its strict legal/medical meaning (even though I always advise anybody to go and see a real autopsy), but rather in its etymological sense: the act of “seeing with one’s own eyes” is the basis for all knowledge, and represents the first step in defeating our fears. By staring directly at what scares us, by studying it and domesticating it, we sometimes discover that our worries were unfounded in the first place.
This is why, on these webpages, I have often openly explored death and all of its complex cultural aspects; because the autoptic act is always fruitful and necessary, even more so if we are addressing the major “collective repressed” in our society.
Bringing forward these very ideas, here is someone who has given rise to a real activist movement advocating a healthier approach to death and dying: Caitlin Doughty.
Caitlin, born in 1984, decided to pursue a career as a mortician to overcome her own fear of death; even as a novice, picking up corpses from homes in a van, preparing them, and facing the peculiar challenges of the crematorium, this brilliant girl had a plan – she intended to change the American funeral industry from the inside. Modern death phobia, which Caitlin directly experienced, has reached paradoxical levels, making the grief elaboration process almost impossible. This irrational anxiety towards dead bodies is the reason we delegate professionals to completely remove the corpse’s “scandalous” presence from our familiar environment, thus depriving relatives of the necessary time to understand their loss. Take the extreme example of online cremation services, through which a parent, for instance, can ship out his own child’s dead body and receive the ashes a few days later: no ritual, no contact, no last image, no memory of this essential moment of transition. How can you come to terms with grief, if you even avoid watching?
From these premises, her somewhat “subversive” project was born: to bring death into people’s homes, to give families the opportunity of taking back their loved ones’ remains, and to turn the undertaking profession into a support service, not preventing relatives from preparing the body themselves, but rather assisting them in a non-invasive way. Spending some time in contact with a dead body does not usually pose any sanitary problem, and could be useful in order to concretely process the loss. To be able to carry out private rituals, to wash and dress the body, to talk to our loved ones one last time, and eventually to have more disposal options: such a positive approach is only possible if we learn to talk openly about death.
Caitlin therefore decided to act on several fronts.
On one hand, she founded The Order of the Good Death, an association of funeral professionals, artists, writers and academics sharing the will to change the Western attitude towards death, funerals, and grief. The Order promotes seminaries, workshops, lectures and organizes the annual Death Salon, a public gathering in which historians, intellectuals, artists, musicians and researchers discuss the various cultural aspects of death.
On the other hand, Caitlin created a successful YouTube channel with the purpose of answering user submitted questions about what goes on behind the scenes of the funeral industry. Her Ask A Mortician webseries doesn’t draw back from any horrific detail (she talks about the thorny problem of post-mortem poo, about the alleged presence of necrophiliacs in the industry, etc.), but her humorous and exuberant approach softens the darker tones and succeeds in passing the underlying message: we shouldn’t be afraid of talking about death.
Finally, to reach an even wider and heterogeneous audience, Caitlin published the thought-provoking Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, an autobiographical account of her time as a funeral home apprentice: with her trademark humor, and to the reader’s secret delight, Caitlin dispenses several macabre anecdotes detailing her misadventures (yes, some chapters ought to be read on an empty stomach), yet she does not hesitate to recount the most tragic and touching moments she experienced on the job. But the book’s main interest really lies in following her ruminations about death and the way her own feelings evolved – eventually leading her to actively try and change the general public attitude towards dying. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes immediately became a best-seller, as a further proof of the fact that people actually want to know more about what is socially kept out of sight.
As an introduction to her work for the Italian readership, I asked Caitlin a few questions.
Has working as a mortician affected the way you look at death?
It has made me more comfortable being around dead bodies. More than that, it has made me appreciate the dead body, and realize how strange it is that we try our best as an industry to hide it. We would be a happier, healthier culture in the West if we didn’t try to cover up mortality.
Did you have to put up some sort of psychological defense mechanism in order to deal with dead bodies on a daily basis?
No, I don’t think so. It’s not the dead bodies that are the issue psychogically. It is far more difficult on the emotions working with the living, taking on their grief, their stories, their pain. You have to strike a balance between being open to the families, but not bringing everything home with you.
“He looks like he’s sleeping” must be the best compliment for a mortician. You basically substitute the corpse with a symbol, a symulacrum. Our society decided long ago that death must be a Big Sleep: in ancient Greece, Tanathos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) were brothers, and with Christianity this analogy solidified for good – see f.i. the word “cemetery”, which literally means “sleeping, resting place”. This idea of death being akin to sleep is clearly comforting, but it’s just a story we keep telling ourselves. Do you feel the need for new narratives regarding death?
“He looks like he’s sleeping” wouldn’t necessarily be a compliment to me. I would love for someone to say “he looks dead, but he looks beautiful. I feel like seeing him like this is helping me accept he’s gone”. It’s harder to accept the loss when we insist that someone is perpetually sleeping. They’re not. They’re dead. That’s devastating, but part of the acceptance process.
In your book, you extensively talk about medicalization and removal of death from our societies, a subject which has been much discussed in the past. You made a step further though, becoming an activist for a new, healthier way to approach death and dying – trying to lift the taboo regarding these topics. But, within every culture, taboos play an important role: do you feel that a more relaxed relationship with death could spoil the experience of the sacred, and devoid it of its mystery?
Death will always be mysterious and sacred. But the actual dying process and the dead body, when made mysterious and kept behind the scenes, are made scary. So often someone will say to me, “I thought my father was going to be cremated in a big pile with other people, thank you for telling me exactly how the process works”. People are so terrified of what they don’t know. I can’t help people with spiritual life after death, I can only help with the worldly realities of the corpse. And I know education makes people less afraid. Death is not taboo in many cultures, and there are many scholars who think it’s not a natural or ingrained taboo at all, only when we make it one.
Has the internet changed the way we experience death? Are we really on the verge of a revolution?
The internet has changed death, but that’s not really something we can judge. Everyone got so angry at the teenagers taking selfies at funerals, but that’s just an expression of the new digital landscape. People in the United States in the 1960s thought that cremation was pagan devil sinful stuff, and now almost 50% of Americans choose it. Each generation takes things a step in a new direction, death evolves.
By promoting death at home and families taking care of their own dead, you are somehow rebelling against a multi-million funeral industry. Have you had any kind of negative feedback or angry reactions?
There are all kinds of funeral directors that don’t like me or what I’m saying. I understand why, I’m questioning their relevancy and inability to adapt. I’d hate me too. They find it very difficult to confront me directly, though. They also find it difficult to have open, respectful dialogues. I think it’s just too close to their hearts.
Several pages in your book are devoted to debunking one of the most recent but well-established myths regarding death: the idea that embalming is absolutely necessary. Modern embalming, an all-American practice, began spreading during Civil War, in order to preserve the bodies until they were carried back home from the front. As this procedure does not exist in Italy, we Italians are obviously unaware of its implications: why do you feel this is such an important issue?
First of all, embalming is not a grand important historical American tradition. It’s only a little more than a hundred years old, so it’s silly to pretend like it’s the fabric of our death culture. Embalming is a highly invasive process that ends with filling the bodies with dangerous chemicals. I’m not against someone choosing to have it done, but most families are told it’s necessary by law or to make the body safe to be around, both of which are completely untrue.
The Order of the Good Death is rapidly growing in popularity, featuring a calendar of death-positive events, lectures, workshops and of course the Death Salon. Most of the organizers and members in the Order are female: why do you think women are at the front line in the death awareness movement?
This is the great mystery. Perhaps it has to do with women’s historical connection to death, and the desire to reclaim it. Perhaps it is a feminist act, refusing to let men have control of our bodies in reproduction, healthcare, or death. There are no solid answers, but I’d love someone to do a Phd on this!
Falk Peplinski è l’autore di questo cortometraggio documentario che narra la quotidianità del dentista Pushkar e del suo maestro Pyara Singh, che operano nei pressi della stazione ferroviaria di Jaipur. Nonostante il tono ironico, questo breve (ma intenso!) filmato vuole essere una dichiarazione d’amore per l’India, paese in cui tutto può succedere…
Questo è il Capilano Suspension Bridge. È situato poco fuori Vancouver, British Columbia, è lungo 135 metri ed è fatto di legno e funi, come i famosi ponti sospesi himalayani. Camminarci sopra dà sempre un po’ le vertigini anche ai visitatori più scafati, perché il ponte ondeggia continuamente e sembra sempre sul punto di capovolgersi… e il volo che potreste fare, in quel caso, è di più di 70 metri.
Nel 1974 alcuni giovani stavano transitando sul ponte, quando un’avvenente donna si avvicinò e chiese loro di partecipare ad un esperimento psicologico su come l’ambiente, il paesaggio e il luogo in cui si sta influenzino la nostra creatività. Quando accettarono, la ricercatrice mostrò loro la fotografia di una donna che si teneva una mano sul volto, e poi chiese loro di scrivere una storia. Dovevano scriverla lì, stando in bilico attaccati al corrimano di funi. Alla fine la donna li ringraziò per il loro contributo all’esperimento (e per il coraggio), disse di chiamarsi Gloria e diede loro il suo numero di telefono, invitandoli a richiamarla la settimana successiva per saperne di più sull’esperimento.
Gloria fece la stessa cosa, quel giorno, con tutti i giovani maschi che passavano sul ponte. E, a causa della sua bellezza, quasi tutti i maschi acconsentivano all’esperimento, sembravano quasi dimenticarsi del posto in cui si trovavano, e scrivevano la storia che avevano inventato. Non solo – evidentemente molto “interessati all’esperimento”, le telefonavano la settimana successiva. 13 maschi su 20 la richiamarono.
L’esperimento, ovviamente, non riguardava affatto gli “effetti dell’esposizione ad attrazioni panoramiche sull’attività creativa”. Quella era la copertura. L’esperimento, ideato dai ricercatori Donald Dutton e Arthur Aron, era mirato a comprendere il legame tra paura ed eccitazione sessuale. La loro ipotesi era che gli uomini avrebbero trovato più attraente l’intervistatrice se l’avessero incontrata in un luogo pericoloso come il Capilano Bridge.
Per confermare la loro ipotesi, ripeterono l’esperimento in un posticino più tranquillo, un parco cittadino. L’intervistatrice questa volta diceva di chiamarsi Donna, ma per il resto le parole che usava erano del tutto identiche. Soltanto 7 uomini su 23 richiamarono la settimana successiva. Non male come risultato, in fondo Gloria/Donna era effettivamente bella, ma decisamente inferiore al “record” sul ponte sospeso. Ma c’era dell’altro.
Le storie scritte dagli ignari soggetti dell’esperimento erano nei due casi piuttosto differenti: quelle scritte sul ponte mostravano un immaginario decisamente più erotico. Secondo i ricercatori, questa maggiore eccitazione sessuale dovuta alla situazione di pericolo sarebbe causata da un’errata attribuzione dell’eccitazione stessa. Questo significa, in poche parole, che quando abbiamo paura avvertiamo diverse sensazioni fisiche – accelerazione cardiaca, sudorazione delle mani, respiro accelerato. Tutte cose che sentiamo anche quando siamo eccitati sessualmente. Quindi, di fronte a un’avvenente fanciulla, il nostro cervello tende ad “interpretare” questi sintomi come causati dalla vista di quella persona, piuttosto che dai 70 metri che ci separano dal suolo e alla nostra fifa di cadere.
Diciamo la verità, la ricerca psicologica è sempre un po’ indietro: che l’eccitazione sessuale fosse incrementata dalla paura, lo sapevano già tutti quei ragazzi che, ben prima degli anni ’70, portavano le loro amichette a vedere i film dell’orrore.
La paura della morte è un processo psicologico riscontrabile in pressoché tutte le culture, ed è dovuto alla capacità del pensiero umano di figurarsi in future e passate situazioni, a trascendere il presente per visualizzare immagini differenti. La certezza della nostra dipartita deriva dall’osservazione della più basilare delle leggi naturali: il mondo è un continuo cambiare di forme, un aggregarsi e un disgregarsi senza tregua, e se siamo vivi lo dobbiamo al fatto che qualcun altro è morto. Quindi, sappiamo che siamo spacciati. Allacciamo la cintura di sicurezza ogni giorno, guardiamo bene prima di attraversare sulle strisce, facciamo check-up medici, ma in fondo sappiamo che prima o poi toccherà a noi. Secondo alcuni psicologi questo terrore è talmente paralizzante che la stessa cultura non sarebbe altro che uno stratagemma per sfuggire dalla paura della morte: un complesso sistema di produzione di senso, di modo che ci illudiamo di sapere cosa ci serve, cosa è importante, cosa si può fare e cosa no, quali sono le regole del successo, quali sono i valori e le tradizioni, chi siamo veramente – un’imponente struttura simbolica in cui ognuno occupa una precisa posizione con doveri e diritti. Questo per combattere l’idea della morte, che annulla ogni senso e vanifica ogni nostro sforzo.
Dall’altro versante, la morte è stata combattuta concretamente e simbolicamente con le tecniche più disparate. Dagli elisir di lunga vita e la ricerca della pietra filosofale nell’alchimia classica, alle pratiche magiche e spirituali del Taoismo religioso, fino alla costruzione di mitologie che spostassero la vita oltre i limiti del corpo vero e proprio (il Nirvana, l’aldilà, la resurrezione Cristiana, ecc.) o che concedessero la consolazione di un’immortalità differita (raggiunta attraverso opere artistiche o dell’ingegno, attraverso la rilevanza storica acquisita dalla persona, attraverso l’atto di mettere al mondo dei figli per continuare a “vivere” nel loro ricordo, ecc.).
Oggi però anche la scienza tenta l’impossibile. Da trent’anni i ricercatori stanno studiando e mettendo a punto processi che rallentino l’invecchiamento. Ovviamente restare giovani non basterebbe, ma dovrebbe essere coadiuvato da ulteriori progressi medico-chirurgici per proteggerci da malattie e incidenti. Inoltre il quadro si complica se pensiamo alla densità di popolazione attuale – andrebbero risolti ovviamente anche i problemi relativi alle risorse energetiche. Da queste poche righe, è chiaro che stiamo parlando ancora di estrema fantascienza, nonostante l’ottimismo di alcuni ricercatori (vedi questo articolo).
A quanto ne sappiamo, in natura esiste un solo animale virtualmente immortale. Si tratta della turritopsis nutricula, un tipo di idrozoo della famiglia Oceanidae. Questa medusa è l’unico animale in grado di invertire il proprio orologio biologico: dopo aver raggiunto la maturità sessuale, la t. nutricula è capace di ritornare allo stadio immaturo, e regredire allo stato di polipo. Un po’ come una farfalla che si tramutasse in bruco, insomma. Questa sorprendente trasformazione è possibile grazie a un processo chiamato transdifferenziazione, in cui un tipo di cellula altera il proprio corredo genetico e diviene un altro tipo di cellula. Altri animali sono capaci di limitate transdifferenziazioni (ad alcune salamandre possono crescere nuovi arti), ma soltanto la t. nutricula rigenera il suo corpo tutto intero. Il processo teoricamente potrebbe essere ripetuto all’infinito, se non fosse che le meduse sono soggette agli stessi pericoli degli altri animali e poche di loro arrivano ad avere l’opportunità di ritornare polipi, prima di finire sul menu di qualche pesce più grosso. Ma, chi lo sa? forse proprio questa minuscola medusa svelerà agli scienziati il segreto per invertire l’invecchiamento.
Il progresso tecnologico avanza a passi da gigante. La scienza si sta già avvicinando alla produzione di organi di ricambio, la ricerca su clonazione, staminali e nanotecnologie applicate alla medicina promette di cambiare il modo in cui pensiamo al futuro. L’idea che non noi, non i nostri figli, ma magari i nostri lontani pronipoti potrebbero avere accesso a vite, se non eterne, lunghe qualche centinaio di anni, stimola la fantasia e pone inediti problemi morali e filosofici. Certamente molti lettori, stando al gioco della speculazione fantascientifica, si domanderanno: ne vale davvero la pena? Chi vorrebbe vivere così a lungo? Non sarebbe forse meglio trovare un modo per imparare a morire serenamente, piuttosto che imparare a vivere in eterno? Altri penseranno invece che, se c’è questa possibilità, perché non provare?
Se qualcuno fosse curioso di approfondire il discorso, questo libro di E. Boncinelli e G. Sciarretta traccia il sogno dell’immortalità dalle origini mitologiche fino alla scienza moderna; il bellissimo documentario Flight From Death – The Quest for Immortality analizza invece la psicologia della morte, la creazione della cultura come schermo protettivo, e l’accettazione del nostro destino finale.
In chiusura, proponiamo come spunto di riflessione la splendida incoscienza (e l’intuitiva saggezza) di una delle più belle fiabe, il capolavoro di James M. Barrie Le Avventure di Peter Pan: “Morire sarà una grande meravigliosa avventura.”
Questo il suo biglietto d’addio, scritto pochi minuti prima di fare fuoco: “La stagione del football è finita. Niente più partite. Niente più bombe. Niente più camminate. Nessun divertimento. Niente più nuotate. 67. Sono 17 anni in più di 50. 17 in più di quanto io avessi bisogno o volessi. Noioso. Mi comporto sempre da stronzo. Nessun divertimento – per nessuno. 67. Stai diventando ingordo. Comportati secondo la tua età. Rilassati – non farà male“.
Hunter Thompson se n’è andato nel modo più consono e adeguato, quello che tutti i suoi fan sapevano avrebbe scelto. Le ceneri del “Dr. Gonzo”, grazie alla generosità del suo amico Johnny Depp, sono state sparate in cielo in un’urna esplosiva sagomata a forma di pugno chiuso con sei dita che stringono un peyote, un simbolo da lui stesso disegnato quale emblema del freak power.
“Quando le cose si fanno strane, quelli strani diventano professionisti“.
“Odio consigliare droghe, violenza o follia a chiunque, ma per me hanno sempre funzionato“.
“Nulla è mai diventato abbastanza bizzarro per me“.